Archive for Books & Films

If N. Korea hacked Sony and threatened us, here’s how we should respond

The New York Times, quoting “[s]enior administration officials,” is reporting that “American officials have concluded that North Korea ordered the attacks on Sony Pictures’s computers.”

Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism attack. Sony capitulated after the hackers threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie, “The Interview,” was released. [N.Y. Times]

The Times report doesn’t say whether the feds also think North Korea was behind the threats that caused Sony to pull The Interview from theaters, but North Korea certainly is profiting from the perception that it was responsible for them. Today, another studio made the cowardly decision to kill a Steve Carell film that would have been set in North Korea.

Nor would this be the first time North Korea has used terrorism to censor The Interview. It has already used its kidnappings of Japanese citizens to censor the film’s closing scene:

Japan, where Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago.

The administration’s sudden urgency came after a new threat delivered this week to desktop computers at Sony’s offices warned that if “The Interview” was released on Dec. 25, “the world will be full of fear.”

“Remember the 11th of September 2001,” it said. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.” [N.Y. Times]

That’s one example of how negotiations with North Korea can be worse than no negotiations with North Korea. Separately, the Times reports on Sony’s internal debates about censoring The Interview, in a simpering kowtow to North Korea’s threats.

Disturbed by North Korean threats at a time when his company was already struggling, Sony’s Japanese chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, broke with what Sony executives say was a 25-year tradition. He intervened in the decision making of his company’s usually autonomous Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment.

According to hacked emails published by other media and interviews with people briefed on the matter, he insisted over the summer that a scene in which Mr. Kim’s head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull. [….]

At one point in the tug of war over the script, Mr. Rogen weighed in with an angry email to Ms. Pascal. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote. “That is a very damning story.” [N.Y. Times]

I’m not sure what would leave me more speechless–a direct, brazen attack on our freedom of expression in our own country; the cowardice of Hollywood, Sony, Japan, and the theater chains; or the idea that the U.S. State Department agreed to review scenes from The Interview, thus putting a stamp of government censorship (or endorsement) on the film.

Or, maybe it’s the argument of an irredeemable imbecile named Justin Moyer, who defends North Korea’s reaction in a blog post at The Washington Post, without condemning its hacking, threats, violence, or use of its Japanese hostages. Moyer even writes, “If a future North Korean missile test, naval exercise, trip across the DMZ or future act of terror is blamed on ‘The Interview,’ Rogen can’t say he didn’t have fair warning.” Say what? I look forward to Moyer’s explanation of why Hitler had every right to be upset about “The Great Dictator,” or why Charlie Chaplin had “fair warning” about the Sudeten Crisis and Kristallnacht.

Whether the evidence ultimately proves North Korea responsible for this or not, petty despots everywhere have learned how to censor what the rest of us are allowed to read and see, and not only in America. I can’t help wondering whether Pyongyang, in turn, learned it from the Innocence of Muslims affair. These events have vast implications for our freedom of expression. Arguments about the film’s artistic merit have no place in this discussion. Parody, including tasteless parody, is at the core of how we express our views on matters of global public interest.

The breach is expected to cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars as the company rebuilds its computer network, conducts a forensic investigation of the attack and deals with the legal fallout, including potential lawsuits from employees. It could also have an effect on the film industry’s creative choices.

“I’ve got to believe that this will spook anybody from considering making the North Koreans bad guys in a film,” movie producer Bill Gerber said. “Unless you were dealing with something that was fact-based and very compelling, it might not be worth it.” [L.A. Times]

This time, will our President stand up for our freedom of expression unambiguously? That would require him to act swiftly and firmly against those found to be responsible. Unfortunately, the Times‘s reporters end an otherwise excellent report with the tired, cliche falsehood that the President has no options because “[t]he North is already under some of the heaviest economic sanctions ever applied.” Pish-posh. I don’t know how many times I have to say it–people who write about sanctions should read them first. People who’ve read the sanctions know they’re weak.

Here, then, is a brief list of things the President could do in response, assuming the evidence shows that North Korea was responsible.

1. Put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. One of George W. Bush’s great, unsung foreign policy failures was his failed nuclear deal with Kim Jong Il, under which he relaxed sanctions and removed North Korea from the list. North Korea’s de-listing marked the beginning of a period during which North Korea escalated its sponsorship of terrorism, including threats, assassinations, and arms shipments to terrorists.

2. Ask the Senate to follow the House’s example and pass the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, to remedy the weaknesses in our North Korea sanctions.

3. Sign an executive order blocking the assets of North Korean state entities responsible for censorship inside North Korea itself. That executive order could be modeled on one that already applies to Iran.

4. Sign a new executive order blocking the assets of entities found to have knowingly perpetrated, attempted, or supported hacking, cyber-attacks, or cyber-espionage against U.S. targets. That order could be modeled on existing executive orders that target the perpetrators and sponsors of terrorism and WMD proliferation.

5. Ask the Director of National Intelligence to compile a report on China’s support for North Korean hackers, release the unclassified portions to the public, and consider either a criminal prosecution or a civil forfeiture action to attach and seize the assets of any Chinese entities hosting, harboring, or supporting North Korea’s hackers.

Sony, of course, should release and promote The Interview in its original, uncut form. Theaters should show it. Newspapers should stop printing Sony’s hacked e-mails, except as they pertain to North Korea’s attempts to suppress the film. Artists should expose and criticize the cowardly decisions of studios to censor criticism of North Korea, and any other government. Courts should exclude Sony’s hacked e-mails as evidence in litigation. And individual citizens who love freedom of speech should give to Thor Halvorssen’s Human Rights Foundation, which plans to send copies of The Interview into North Korea by balloon.

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Update:

Suki Kim responds to critics of her decision to go undercover

It’s ironic to read how the people at PUST–who’ve suppressed their religious, political, and moral beliefs to accommodate and assist the world’s most oppressive regime, and also, to suppress the truth about it–have challenged Suki Kim’s ethical decisions. But some of those criticisms might be more valid coming from other sources, so Kim addresses them on her web site. I can’t disagree with Kim’s justification that overt journalism has failed us.

There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….]

I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST.

Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger.  Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity. So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible.  [Suki Kim]

All valid points, but it also occurs to me that had Ms. Kim been caught, I’d probably be railing against her now, which doesn’t seem completely fair somehow. While I think Ms. Kim has told us important things about North Korea—and especially important things about the ethical compromises that some foreigners have made with its regime—I still wouldn’t advise anyone to try anything like this again.

I’d greatly prefer it if the journalists who are there now (and yes, I mean the AP) made more of an effort to report the news from North Korea objectively, rejecting the regime’s financial entanglements and editorial constraints. Failing that, they would do better to fund, equip, train, and tap into existing guerrilla journalism.

I doubt, of course, that we really know the whole story about PUST, either–who its faculty are, what they’re really doing there, who they’re teaching what to, how much money the regime makes from them, and what skills those young elites are really learning. That’s why I’ll keep my mind open just a sliver until one day, when James Kim reveals just what they were really doing there all along.

Suki Kim will be on The Daily Show tonight

More on that here. In a separate interview, Ms. Kim says that “North Koreans are so oblivious of the outside world that even some children of elite families believe that Korean is spoken in the rest of the world.”

“They, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that,” Kim said. “Some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world. So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.” [….]

She said the students, many of them majoring in computer science, did not know of the existence of the Internet.

Kim said she was shocked to see how isolated the North Korean people are from the outside world, how much their lives are controlled by authorities, and how strong a personality cult surrounded the ruling family of then leader Kim Jong-il.

“It’s religious, really. Absolute belief in the great leader, where, you know, this generation — three generations of these men who, these hugely narcissistic men, basically wiped everything out of their culture except themselves. [Yonhap]

Which, frankly, I found surprising, given the amount and extent of subversive information, foreign DVDs, and samizdat literature said to be circulating there, even among the very same demographic:

A series of books considered “subversive” in North Korea have recently been circulating in black markets, with people renting them out at a fixed price, the Daily NK has learned. The books are only lent to those whose identities can be verified and the main clientele–university students–rent out the books for 3,000 KPW an hour, according to a local source. [….]

“The people who first established a black market for books used to be mainly writers, journalists, and teachers, but now, they’re university students,” the source explained. “Most books are translated and printed by students studying foreign languages.”

These students are largely the children of Party cadres, who use their parents’ influence to get traders to bring in foreign literature. After procuring the titles, students make copies of these translations to sell on the black market using copying facilities located in public institutions. [….]

“College students are used to the culture of watching over each other, so they enjoy detective stories to try to understand the social fabric of the North– where you can’t even trust your own friends,” she elaborated. “A lot of the ‘Japanese novels’ are crime stories investigating cases involving serial killers.”

Elements of the works resonate with most who enjoy reading them, “Looking at the rocky relationship between individuals and power, and having to live through complicated times with wisdom and hidden solutions feels so real,” the source said, citing opinions of many students. “It’s like it shows how you have to struggle to survive in a capitalist society, so it’s interesting,” others have said. [Daily NK]

The actual truth of what North Koreans know must vary dramatically between individuals. Not all people are equally curious or inquisitive. In many cases, as Ms. Kim suggests, the students probably know much more than they’ll admit.

Asked about the prospects for North Koreans to overthrow their government, Ms. Kim gets it exactly right, at least as I see it:

“I don’t know how they’re going to rise up. They can’t even get to the next town without a permission. They don’t have the Internet. They have no way of going there, transportation system. There’s just nothing that connects people,” she said. “So I think it is up to us in the rest of the world to do something where the system is not going to be maintained the same way.”

Update: To contribute to gulag survivor/journalist Kang Cheol Hwan’s campaign to do that, see Dan Bielefeld’s post here.

N. Korea: We didn’t hack Sony, but we’re glad someone did

As suspicions grow that North Korea was indeed responsible for the Sony hack, North Korea offers that oddly unconvincing denial. If the North Koreans really did do it, some commenters think the U.S. will have to respond:

Aitel says the hacks are potentially “a ‘near red-line moment'” because they represent the kind of incident that would almost require a US policy response assuming a rival state was behind it. As Aitel says, “This is the first demonstration of what the military would call Destructive Computer Network Attack (CNA) against a US Corporation on US soil … a broad escalation in cyberwarfare tactics” that would demand some kind of American response. [Business Insider]

Personally, I’d have thought that the 2009 incident when North Korea (or its sympathizers) was suspected of hacking “27 American and South Korean government agencies and commercial Web sites” would have crossed a red line. I’d be interested in knowing what evidence linked those attacks to North Korea, but targets of cyberattacks often avoid publicizing the fact that they were attacked.

Mandiant’s extensive report on China’s state-sponsored hacking was an exception to that rule. Maybe Mandiant should write a second report on North Korea, and especially about what support the North Korean hackers receive from China.

PUST’s un-Christian attacks on Suki Kim

Ms. Kim’s recollections about PUST and North Korea have obvious public interest value for citizens and policymakers, but it’s hard to believe she told us much that an astute observer wouldn’t have guessed anyway. I think the most valuable thing Suki Kim may have taught us is how invested those who “engage” Pyongyang become in imposing a code of omerta to conceal the truth from us, regardless of the ethical cost.

But the author, Suki Kim, may have provoked even more anger among the university’s Christian educators. They have denounced Ms. Kim for breaking a promise not to write anything about her experiences and said her memoir contains inaccuracies, notably her portrayal of them as missionaries, which could cause them trouble with the North Korean authorities. [….]

Dr. Kim sent her what she described as a series of angry and distressed emails when he found out about her plans to publish the book. At least two of her former fellow teachers also wrote, imploring her to scrap the idea.

In a telephone interview from China, Dr. Kim sought to rebut the entire book.

“I am really upset about the attitude, her writings, her telling lies, her cheating us,” he said.

He was especially critical of what he called the erroneous assertion that the other teachers were missionaries. “We are educators,” he said.

If the North Korean authorities thought that the school was seeking to convert the students to Christianity, Dr. Kim said, “we would have trouble.”

“They know we are Christian, we do not hide that,” he said. “But we are not missionaries. Christians and missionaries are different.” [N.Y. Times]

As you analyze whether any “engagement” project with North Korea is beneficial, ask yourself who changed who. The evidence that PUST has made Pyongyang more like America is far from clear, but it’s very clear that the PUST administration has taken on some very North Korean characteristics.

I must put Miss Kim’s book on my list now.

Sony Pictures should go after North Korean hackers’ Chinese enablers

Since the weekend, several of you have e-mailed me about “suspicions” — and really, I don’t think they went further than that — that North Korea may have hacked Sony Pictures and leaked unreleased movies to file sharers to punish it for “The Interview.” Those rumors were covered by many outlets, but frankly, the open-source evidence for North Korea’s complicity was little more than speculation, at least until I read this today:

Hackers who knocked Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems offline last week used tools very similar to those used last year to attack South Korean television stations and ATMs, people briefed on the investigation said.

The similarity would reinforce a hunch among some investigators, which include Sony, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a team from Silicon Valley security company FireEye Inc., that North Korea played a role in the breach at the film and television studio, one of the largest in the U.S. South Korea publicly blamed the 2013 attacks on North Korea. [….]

Sony Pictures is set to release this month “The Interview,” a comedy in which U.S. spies enlist a television host played by James Franco and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In June, a spokesman for the Pyongyang government said distribution of the movie would be “the most undisguised terrorism and a war action” and threatened a “strong and merciless countermeasure” if the U.S. government “patronizes the film.” [Wall Street Journal]

It’s hardly proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it’s something. Interestingly, “The Interview” wasn’t one of the Sony films the hackers leaked — not yet, anyway. For now, Sony Pictures continues to deny that it has direct knowledge of North Korea’s involvement. As I noted here, Sony was previously reported to have made changes to the script to appease the North Koreans. So much for appeasing North Korea, although South Korea seems congenitally incapable of learning that:

“The Interview,” a North Korea-themed satire starring actors Seth Rogen and James Franco, won’t be released in South Korea, a Seoul-based official for Sony Pictures Entertainment said. [….]

South Korean media reports cite a Sony Pictures Korea official as saying the distributor never had plans to release the film due to concerns about inter-Korean relations. A Sony Pictures official declined to comment on the reasons behind the decision not to show the film in South Korea. [WSJ Korea Real Time, Jeyup S. Kwaak]

Cowards. Kwaak’s post notes that South Korean state censors prevented “Team America” from being screened in South Korea, but doesn’t link the suppression of “The Interview” to government censorship. One possibility is that the ROK government asked Sony very politely. Another is that Sony anticipated that the usual gang of pro-North Korean thugs and thought police would try to disrupt screenings.

And what recourse does Sony have against the hackers, assuming it can prove that North Korea was responsible? Hacking is a federal felony, and an attack on a U.S.-based computer system would arguably give the feds subject-matter jurisdiction. If the Justice Department prosecutes, it probably wouldn’t find any live bodies to stick in the dock, but because hacking is a predicate offense for money laundering, DOJ would still be able to forfeit assets of anyone the court convicted. Not that that would do Sony much good.

Sony might be able to sue North Korea by taking advantage of several exceptions to North Korea’s sovereign immunity under 28 U.S.C. 1605(a). Collecting the judgements, of course, would be another matter entirely. Just ask any of the lawyers who won these judgments.

More interesting, however, are suspicions that the hackers may have been operating out of China, which isn’t a novel theory. That almost certainly couldn’t happen without the knowledge of the Chinese government and other Chinese entities, perhaps including entities with assets that could be reached by U.S. courts.

This suggests that a more fruitful legal strategy may be for the feds to prosecute, and for parties like Sony to sue, the Chinese enablers. There are even indications that our government might have the political will do to that. The new Congress could also require the Director of National Intelligence to report on China’s sponsorship of North Korean hacking. Unclassified portions of that report might provide useful evidence for Sony’s case.

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Update: One reason Sony Pictures might not go after the hackers’ Chinese enablers is that Hollywood has been too preoccupied welcoming its new Chinese overlords and sucking up to its new censors. I thought it was bad enough when Sony Pictures bent over for Japan’s censorship; wait till you see what stultifying delights the Chinese have in store for us.

And the unlikely hero of this alarming and underreported controversy? Oliver Stone, himself a suspected disseminator of KGB propaganda, naturally. So I guess the wounds from the Stalin-Mao rift are still raw in some quarters. Hat tip to a reader.

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Update 2: According to this report by U.S. Army Major Steve Sin, a defector reported that as of 2004, members of a North Korean military hacker unit called Unit 121 conducted “some of its operations from a North Korean government-operated hotel called Chilbosan in Shenyang, China.” Business Insider sent a reporter there (Update: or, horked the pictures online; see comments) to see what the hotel looks like today.

Sue Terry’s review of Chris Hill’s book was much too kind

Terry’s review isn’t what I’d call favorable, and Terry is a much kinder soul than I am, but it seems too kind to call Hill “one of the most successful diplomats of his generation.”

Sure, Hill was one of his generation’s most successful careerists, but as a diplomat, he may have been the greatest human wrecking ball in modern American diplomacy.

What I’m really waiting for is a critical appraisal of Hill’s IKEA writing style.

4th Annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival

4th NHIFF banner

NKnet is hosting its 4th annual North Korean Human Rights International Film Festival this coming Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, in Gwanghwamun, Seoul.

This year there are 14 films from Korea, the US, and Saudi Arabia, and two of the films received financial support from the festival:

poster: November 9th
November 9th
100 min. – Korea – documentary – no English subtitles
Directed by: Kim Gyu-Min (the director of Winter Butterfly, which played at the first NHIFF in 2011)
Category: Reunification of the Korean Peninsula
*Following the film, there will be a conversation with the director, who is originally from North Korea (interpretation not available).

Synopsis:

10 hours from now, the ceasefire line will collapse and the Korean peninsula will be reunified.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall – symbolizing the division of Germany – fell. It wasn’t through an agreement of the East and West German governments that it happened on that day. Nor were East or West German academics or anyone else from around the world for that matter able to foresee the wall would come down on November 9, 1989. A year later Germany was reunified for the first time in 41 years through the votes of the East and West German citizenry in free elections.

– What might transpire if November 9 were to come to the Korean peninsula?
– How much have we prepared for a Korean 11/9?
– In preparing for a Korean 11/9, what are the things we must do first?
– Is there any way to know what will happen on 11/10 and beyond?


movie photo: The Threshold of Death
The Threshold of Death
115 min. – Korea – English subtitles
Directed by: Lee Eun Sang
Category: Refugees & Resettlement
* will be featured at the opening ceremony

Synopsis:

Dong-jin works at the immigration office uncovering illegal immigrants. His relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is one of obligation, and things are awkward between his younger brother, Dong-seok, and the family.

Coworker Nam-il regularly uses his position to commit corruption, while Dong-jin’s youngest sibling Eun-sung is led by compassion and unable to be cold-hearted. Unable to build relationships with those around him in his lonely daily life, Dong-jin finds himself favorably inclined toward Yeon-hwa, a Chinese-Korean singer he met at noraebang (a singing room).

When she suddenly receives a call from a broker who is guiding her niece, Soon-bok (who has escaped from North Korea), things fall into disarray. Seeing Yeon-hwa’s difficult situation and Soon-bok’s purity and will to live, Dong-jin starts to change little by little from his cold ways. [SPOILER ALERT – stop reading here if you plan to see the film] In the wake of his weak father’s death and then Yeon-hwa’s suicide, Dong-jin works hard to find Soon-bok.

All of this amounts to nothing as his coworker Nam-il tries to shift the blame for his corrupt dealings to Dong-jin and his sister Eun-sung betrays him in order to protect the family. Having lost everything, Dong-jin is left alone only with his sad reality and desire to see Soon-bok.


For more complete information about the festival, please visit NKnet’s website, where I’ve put up lots of trailers, photos, film schedule and descriptions, how to RSVP, directions, reviews, subtitle info, the program for the opening ceremony, etc.

For Facebookers, there’s an event page for the festival and an event page for the opening ceremony.

Dan Bielefeld

Adam Johnson: “Everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned.”

Somewhere, the world’s smallest violin is playing a Samuel Barber adagio for Walter Keats, who whines, not about the North Koreans who shut down his tour business after he spent years coddling and enriching them, but about Adam Johnson for writing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel:

Between 2006 and 2012, Walter Keats led dozens of tours as president of Asia Pacific Travel. By 2012, after building trust with North Korean officials, Keats and his wife were permitted to lead groups year-round.

Then, without explanation, Keats and his wife were denied entry. He believes his blacklisting was punishment for organizing a tour for Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University who was doing research for “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a novel set in North Korea that was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book contains an irreverent portrayal of the late leader Kim Jong Il, which may have upset the North Korean government.

“The way the [North Korean] system works, somebody has to get punished for any kind of transgression that takes place,” Keats said.

Johnson said he has no way of knowing whether his novel was the cause of Keats’ banishment. “I truly hope not. From my sense of it, everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned,” he said in an email. [L.A. Times, Steven Borowiec]

For Keats to blame Adam Johnson for ruining his tour business is like blaming Harriet Beecher Stowe for driving up the price of cotton. Surely Keats does not mean to suggest that his clients should submit to the permanent, extraterritorial jurisdiction of North Korean censorship to protect his profits. Come of think of it, that could be the premise for another half-decent book.

Perhaps unintentionally, Johnson does suggest one potentially effective strategy for sabotaging the North Korea slumming industry. The plan isn’t without its flaws. Not only does a talented writer have to travel to North Korea, but he also has to come back to write about it.

Tonight, on The John Batchelor Show, Bruce Bechtol will discuss North Korea’s …

terrorism, proliferation, and policy responses to both.

Bechtol, as you recall, testified as an expert in the Kaplan v. DPRK case that found North Korea liable for sponsoring the Hezbollah rocket attacks that injured the civilian plaintiffs. Judge Lamberth cited both Bechtol’s testimony and his book, The Last Days of Kim Jong Il, in his Memorandum Opinion.

The interview will air at 11:15 p.m. Eastern Time in Washington, and at other times in other areas, on this station. You can also listen to recorded broadcasts of the show here, which you should, for another good reason — Gordon Chang often co-hosts the show.

I don’t care for most talk radio, frankly, but Batchelor’s show is always intelligent, always has insightful guests, and never harangues. You may or may not agree with its perspective, in the same way that I don’t agree with NPR’s perspective, but still find its content redeeming. Batchelor’s show is NPR for conservatives, only without the government funding.

I love watching North Korean refugees emerging as a cultural force …

to inform the world about life, such as it was, in their homeland. The South China Morning Post covers a North Korean human rights film festival in Hong Kong, and The Washington Post’s new Seoul correspondent, Anna Fifield, covers a young North Korean rapper who doesn’t quite share my taste in music, but does share my outlook about food distribution north of the no-smile line.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The story I linked Monday about Michael Kirby’s comments spurring the U.N. to action in North Korea eventually grew into two posts, because in the same story, Kirby also warned against trivializing what’s happening in North Korea.

The Commission of Inquiry, which reported to the UN in March, detailed horrific abuses of human rights in North Korea, including starving political prisoners reduced to eating grass and rodents in secret gulags, schoolchildren made to watch firing squad executions, and women forced to drown their own babies to uphold racial purity laws.

Justice Kirby compared the actions of the North Korean regime to a modern-day Holocaust, and he warned against treating North Korea as a quirky, oddball regime.

“Please do not think North Korea is a cuddly, cute sort of a case, with a leader with a bad haircut who is nonetheless loveable and is going to go in the right direction because he’s a young man. This is not a situation where a young person is going to bring a new broom, if his is a new broom it is a violent new broom. Things have not improved.”

I suppose Justice Kirby was talking about films like “The Interview” and the Dennis Rodman parody “Diplomats,” neither of which I’ve seen. Based on the description of the plot premise, it’s clear to me that “Diplomats” is too stupid to have much redeeming artistic merit, and will almost certainly trivialize a terrible tragedy. It deserves, frankly, to be the object of a boycott, but as North Korea has learned, protests like these often backfire — just like Dennis Rodman’s birthday serenade did. The learner’s-permit demographic that films like “Diplomats” target are unmoved by moral and philosophical arguments, and by standards of taste.

If you filled a thimble with everything Dennis Rodman knew about North Korea last year, there would still be room for everything Dennis Rodman remembers about North Korea this year. Rodman has suggested, probably seriously, that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his addlebrained adventures in North Korea. Most people dismissed this as farce, but to be fair, Rodman may (however inadvertently) have done as much to bring Pyongyang’s crimes against humanity into the global consciousness as Kirby’s carefully documented report.

That is both good and a sad comment on the state of our media and human rights watchdogs today. The sadder comment is that no watchdog, no global law-giver, no son of Korea in any position of global leadership, and no Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader of any nation, indispensable or otherwise, has lifted more than a token finger to press for action on the findings of the COI’s report, so far. The people of North Korea have been forgotten for decades. All indications are that in September, the General Assembly will send Justice Kirby’s report to the Security Council. All indications also suggest that after 48 hours of page four news, the U.N. will have forgotten it by the end of October.

My expectations for “The Interview” are almost as low. “The Interview,” however, benefits from much promotional assistance from the North Korean government. With its impeccable talent for irony, North Korea’s official “news” service, KCNA, printed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that called the film “terrorism,” accused the United States of “bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and threatened “to mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or attack the supreme leadership of the country even a bit.” It concluded, “Those who defamed our supreme leadership and committed the hostile acts against the DPRK can never escape the stern punishment to be meted out according to a law wherever they might be in the world.”

North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. KCNA and the Associated Press signed two still-undisclosed memoranda of agreement in 2011, under which they agreed to cooperate in their reporting of “news” from North Korea.

Thankfully, Pyongyang still hasn’t learned that the best way to censor speech in America is violence — say, summoning mobs into the streets, sacking our embassies, and killing our diplomats. Do that, and our President will go on TV to apologize to the mobs for the very existence of free speech, we’ll jail the heretics who offend you, and our own government will be your vicarious censor. (This is the real Benghazi scandal — and the Republicans can’t see that.)

As with the U.N.’s greater interest in objectively lesser crises, parodies of North Korea also raise the question of double standards. Can you imagine someone making a spoof film about Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or even Gaza? (Not that anyone should.) How many decades passed before a film like “Inglorious Basterds” could be made?

This isn’t to say that North Korea shouldn’t be parodied (it should be), or even that the parodies must be tasteful (the good ones seldom are). What I suppose I am saying is that artistic judgments are balancing tests that weigh what makes a work distasteful against what makes it important. I struggled with that balance in my judgments of films like “Borat” (very funny and thought-provoking, but even more distasteful) and “Team America” (distasteful, but funny and profanely profound). The moral risks of failing that test are greater if the work’s effect is to blunt our sense of outrage.

The truth, of course, is that Justice Kirby deserves the Nobel Prize, and deserves to be the subject of a serious nomination campaign for both himself and his fellow Commissioners. Perhaps that campaign would give one of our world’s great institutions, or their so-called leaders, a small twinge of responsibility to act.

If, in the end, the world is only capable of answering tragedy with farce, it least it should be good farce. It ought to be better a better farce than “Diplomats,” and diplomats.

Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.

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Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:

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For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

“Secret State of North Korea,” on PBS’s Frontline, Tuesday, January 14th

On Tuesday January 14th, PBS’s Frontline will air a one-hour program about the North Korea most foreign journalists aren’t allowed to see: Secret State of North Korea.

Not only are North Koreans illegally smuggling information from inside North Korea out, a growing cohort of defectors are risking their lives to get information about the outside world in.

“Pretty quickly, what surprised me the most wasn’t the poverty and poor conditions people live in—which are, undoubtedly, shocking,” says FRONTLINE director James Jones. “It was the ordinary North Koreans who were standing up to authority.”

And doing so at great risk to themselves. 

That web page includes a brief trailer. You may recognize the footage as the work of the guerrilla cameramen of Asia Press’s Rimjingang. The men who took these images risked their lives to show you what you will see on that program.

For those living in the Washington area, the program airs at 10 p.m. on WETA, channel 26. Here’s a link for a listing in other parts of the U.S.

Upcoming Events: “The Defector” Screenings, and EAHR’s online round table

I’D PREVIOUSLY POSTED ABOUT two new documentaries about how the real North Korea — the one behind the facade — is changing. One of these, The Defector, will be screened this week at two separate events in Washington. If you’re in the area, I hope you can make it.

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I OWE AN APOLOGY to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, which asked me to post about their online seminar on advocating for human rights in North Korea, and which I then completely forgot to do. Fortunately, their previous December 2nd event is on YouTube, and a second seminar is coming up next week.
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New documentaries show how N. Korea is changing, despite Kim Jong Un

Two new documentaries on North Korea are promising us brave and original journalism about life in North Korea, as the vast majority of North Koreans somehow live it.

A long-time reader writes to tell me that the Heritage Foundation will be screening a new documentary, “The Defector,” on December 5th, at 5:30 p.m., and that Shin Dong Hyok will be in attendance. Here is how the film’s website describes it:

Dragon is a human smuggler who leads North Korean defectors across borders for a living. His latest undercover trip with Sook-Ja and Yong-hee takes an unexpected turn when they are left stranded in China, putting their dramatic escape plan into question. Their perilous journey reflects the reality of tens of thousands of North Koreans currently in hiding in China. Filmed undercover by a Korean-Canadian filmmaker, Ann Shin gets intimate access with these three individuals in this POV film and explores universal questions about human rights, smuggling and the pursuit of freedom.

The film’s producer is Korean-Canadian Ann Shin, who profiles the film and adds a trailer at this New York Times blog. You can see more here, and a Yahoo News report here. The previews suggest that human traffickers are stepping in to fill the void created by a system of international law that has broken down in the face of China’s intransigence.

There is another new film that I hope readers will help me watch out for — “Life Inside the Secret State,” produced by Jiro Ishimaru, the man behind the guerrilla cameras of Rimjingang. Life Inside the Secret State focuses on the tough North Korean women who are the reluctant agents of broad economic, social, and even political change in North Korea. This post carries a discussion between Ishimaru and Rajiv Narayan of Amnesty International:

“I was genuinely struck by those women…it’s so satisfying to see these individuals [having the] self confidence to stand up to authority. . . . Women for the first time ever are the people who are going to the market and earning a living, so they’ve become the people pushing the boundaries of these changes.”

You can read reviews here, here, and here. If anyone hears word that this film will be screened in the Washington area, kindly drop me a line.

For all the whining I do about dull, uninformative, pretentious minder-guided reporting from Pyongyang, I feel doubly obligated to support journalism and filmmaking that show courage and take real, physical risks to tell us the truth. I hope you’ll seek these films out, see them, tell your friends, and tell me what you thought about them.

Review: Treasury’s War, by Juan Zarate

Let me begin with an apology for the lack of posting lately. While tossing a football around with some friends, I took a direct head-on hit to that finger you need for typing words that contain the letters “l” or an “o,” which turn out to be less dispensable than you might think. The time I didn’t spend typing, I spent reading instead:

Treasury's War cover

[clicking the image takes you to Amazon]

If you want to understand why the Banco Delta Asia action worked so well, how financial sanctions bankrupted al Qaeda, and how they’re bankrupting Iran today, you have to read this book. If you’re reading this site, however, the odds are you’re interested in what Zarate has to say in chapters 9 and 10, where he writes about North Korea, Banco Delta Asia, and Chris Hill.

Zarate, who is usually effusive in his praise for the people he worked with in government, clearly has no use for Hill. Hill comes off looking like a boorish, incompetent asshole who, despite repeated explanations of how Section 311 worked, either didn’t grasp the concept or didn’t care. According to Zarate, Hill’s minions reduced Daniel Glaser to tears by bullying him into simply switching off the section 311 action–and its downstream effects–almost instantly, which is a lot like asking Treasury to instantly give North Korea a new reputation for honest financial dealings with a banking “ecosystem” that’s extremely concerned about reputations and access to correspondent accounts in U.S. banks and dollar-clearing through New York.

Readers of this site already know that I’m no fan of Chris Hill. I’ve written extensively about how Hill played fast and loose with the truth when he sold his deal to Congress in 2007. Two years later, after his deal with Kim Jong Il had collapsed under the weight of its own suspended disbelief, Hill was eventually confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, but only after a bitter confirmation fight. After just 16 months in office, Hill retired, having failed to broker a new Iraqi government or to negotiate a suitable status of forces agreement (and you’d think a guy like Hill could have closed a deal if he wanted one badly enough), and with his relations with U.S. military commanders strained.

I’ve already told you that Zarate’s book is indispensable (it’s also a fun read) but I do have two criticisms. First, his treatment of the SWIFT network as sacrosanct, and his implicit criticism of Section 220 of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 reads like a set of SWIFT talking points. Zarate worries about U.S. laws and EU regulations that forced SWIFT to cut off certain Iranian banks, and wonders how far down this slippery slope we’d go to sanction other countries.

I agree that SWIFT should be commended for helping Treasury after 9/11, and that The New York Times shouldn’t have outed SWIFT for doing it. But SWIFT has significant business operations located in the United States, and it derives significant benefits from the security of our country and the health of our financial system. By Zarate’s admission, SWIFT took the actions it took in 2001 because it knew it would not prevail if Treasury served it with subpoenas for financial information. Should SWIFT be forced to stop financial messaging services to every country that gets low marks for human trafficking or anti-money laundering countermeasures? Clearly not. But when some supranational authority demands countermeasures against specific banks known to be involved in proliferation or money laundering, SWIFT shouldn’t be exempt, either, particularly given that by its nature, SWIFT doesn’t know the purpose of the transactions it facilitates. Here’s paragraph 11, from UNSCR 2094:

Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of financial services or the transfer to, through, or from their territory, or to or by their nationals or entities organized under their laws (including branches abroad), or persons or financial institutions in their territory, of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, including by freezing any financial or other assets or resources on their territories or that hereafter come within their territories, or that are subject to their jurisdiction or that hereafter become subject to their jurisdiction, that are associated with such programmes or activities and applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions in accordance with their national authorities and legislation;

Zarate is otherwise pretty big on enforcing international norms and standards, and to be fair, Zarate’s manuscript was probably already with the publisher when this resolution passed. It’s hard to argue today that North Korean banks that have been specifically sanctioned by the U.N. itself, the EU, or the United States because of “credible information” about their proliferation should continue to receive messaging services without interruption. Maybe Zarate wouldn’t argue that now. I hope he wouldn’t. But even before that, we’d seen a long services of messages about the need for “countermeasures” against North Korea from the Financial Action Task Force.

My second criticism is of the opportunity Zarate misses at the end of his book when he calls for the government to help preserve and enhance our economic power. That’s especially unfortunate when Zarate’s explanation of that power and its importance were so effective. His last chapter and his epilogue introduce a series of important concepts concepts about trade, protectionism, technology, foreign investment, and the strength of the dollar, but unfortunately, and perhaps because of the editing process, those concepts aren’t explained or illustrated well, and I finished the book without understanding how more government intrusion would advance, rather than inhibit, our economic competitiveness. I hope that’s something Zarate will explain further, perhaps in a future edition.

(This chapter still stimulated much thought about other key networks, aside from the financial system, that run through the United States. Could the free flow of information through U.S.-based servers, or a cloud network, be another future power source? How about restricting the access to U.S. ports of cargoes originating from ports that fail to take their counter-proliferation or counter-terrorism responsibilities seriously?)

Treasury’s War won’t win any literary awards, but its simple and clear writing style is probably best for a topic this complex. The information, clear explanations, and illustrative examples make it required reading for any student of economics or foreign policy in this age. If you’re a North Korea watcher or congressional staffer who wants to understand how H.R. 1771 would work, and why its strategy is nothing at all like the old fashioned sanctions used against Saddam Hussein, read Zarate’s book (it’s also available on e-book).

I can’t wait to read this one: “Treasury’s War,” by Juan Zarate

I wonder if Amazon can deliver this while I still have an unexpected windfall of leisure time:

Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, plays the role of the bureaucrat. He joined the Treasury Department just weeks before the 2001 attacks to aid the agency’s enforcement wing. [….]

Treasury launched its most ambitious assault with this new weapon on a tiny bank in Macau. That bank, Banco Delta Asia (BDA), caught the department’s attention in 2003 for doing a hefty amount of business with North Korea. Classic sanctions, such as freezing individual bank accounts and forbidding commercial activity, had succeeded in isolating Pyongyang, but BDA, among others, helped the country stream its profits from illegal arms sales, money laundering and counterfeiting into the international financial system. In the most notable revelation of the book, Zarate recounts a chain reaction that no one predicted. Within two weeks of its September 2005 designation as a primary money laundering concern under Section 311, a hemorrhaging BDA shuttered all of its North Korean accounts and handed its administration to the Macau government. Fearing the North Korean taint, banks in financial hubs worldwide, and even North Korean ally China, ended business with North Korea.

The Kim regime initially dismissed the designation as yet another feckless sanction. But as its lifelines collapsed, it panicked. North Korean leaders refused to return to the six-party nuclear talks until Treasury, in Zarate’s words, removed “the scarlet letter from their reputation.” By designating BDA for its North Korean dealings, the United States exposed a raft of illegal North Korean financial activity, from money laundering to drug trafficking, that no bank wanted to be associated with.

The designation bought the United States real leverage with North Korea. But just when it could have waited for Pyongyang to flail its way into concessions, the administration folded. Zarate bitterly recalls watching from his new perch at the National Security Council as, without any North Korean compromise, the State Department badgered Treasury into reversing the action so as to kick-start the talks. By trying to “put the genie back in the bottle,” Zarate argues, Washington undermined its credibility and “cashed in on BDA too soon.” [Washington Post]

This sounds like the most engrossing read a person can possibly have without having to clear one’s browser history afterward. In fact, it’s exactly the strategy behind H.R. 1771, one of the worthier projects this Congress has taken on–and 1771 would be far more comprehensive and deadly than an action against one dirty little bank in Macau.

Hat tip to a reader.